On the Right Tech Track

The gods of technology have granted business schools a dazzling array of directions and possibilities. Without a map that clearly shows the way from the chalkboard to cyberspace, however, schools must indoctrinate, experiment, and embrace new approaches.
On the Right Tech Track

During the 1980s, management educators had only begun to see what computers could do for their administrative and educational practices. The tried-and-true, traditional chalk-and-blackboard lecture had yet to meet its first “smart classroom,” one wired for multimedia, data projections, and interactivity.

Fast forward two decades and you find B-school deans seeking out IT specialists, while WAPs, LANs, laptops, and e-learning have become commonplace for faculty members and students. The possibilities are endless, the scope for creative teaching exciting—and the prospect of keeping up with an ever accelerating pace of technological change overwhelming.

“If you think about it, life was much easier when you could walk into a classroom with only a piece of chalk. All you had to do was make sure the chalkboard was there,” says Anne Massey, associate professor of information systems at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, Indianapolis. “When you have a fully wired classroom, all this technology at your fingertips, all these resources over the Internet, and all these students with laptops—suddenly, you have to be more creative in terms of capitalizing on those opportunities.”

The trends on today’s business school campus reflect a new era of learning, when technology changes significantly in short spans of time. Simply staying current can be a full-time occupation. But the future of tech in management education is absolute. The only questions still up for debate are what form it will take and to what extent it will affect the nature of its graduates.

Whether business schools have adequate funding or the staff is trained in all things tech has almost become irrelevant. Higher education no longer can “opt out” of IT. As the demand for a computer-influenced education increases, business schools worldwide are striving to create the best wired, wireless, and online learning communities for their students.

The “No.1 issue of the moment” is living up to the expectation of all-the-time-any-time access to course and university information.

Adapting to 24/7 Learning

There’s much talk about “distance learning,” where courses are delivered to nonresident students at any location. But business schools also are investing extensive resources in providing resident students the same easy access to school and course information. Technology has transformed the way on-site students expect to learn about real-world business strategies. These new expectations create increased pressure for business schools to provide wholly interactive environments.

Many schools have initiated student laptop programs at both graduate and undergraduate levels, in addition to distance learning programs. Wireless access protocols (WAPs) and local area networks (LANs) enable students to interact with their professors and fellow students at any time of day, from any point on campus, through antennas plugged into their laptops. Plus, more universities are using online information portals to provide students, faculty, and staff access to course content, scheduling information, searchable databases, and much more.

Around-the-clock learning comes only through a computer infrastructure that is extremely sound, says Russ Altendorff, information systems director for London Business School. The “No. 1 issue of the moment,” he says, is living up to the expectation of all-the-time-any-time access to course and university information. Schools no longer have the luxury of thinking that “nighttime and summer are times when you can dismantle everything and install something new.”

For this reason, minimizing complexity, eliminating redundancy, and streamlining all computer operations are essential to keeping any operating system up and running. To this end, London Business School has partnered with SUN Microsystems to help modernize and combine the many systems that it had added in the last 20 years—including 20 different servers running everything from Windows NT to Novell to Unix.

“During the year 2000 we all learned about the real cost of complexity,” says Altendorff. “Everybody across the world had to come to grips with upgrading everything in sight. Any weakness caused by complexity really showed up. We’ve tried to simplify and at least rationalize the number of operating systems we support. That in itself reduces cost and risk and drives you toward your goal of 24/7 operation, 99.9 percent of the time.”

A university that is literally open for learning 24 hours a day dramatically alters the educational process, agrees Thomas McQuillan, executive director of MBA and MS programs at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia. “We’ve noticed that students go nowhere without their laptops. From the time they come here in the morning until the time they leave in the evening, they are able to communicate 24 hours a day with one another. MBA students are not 9-to-5 types of people,” he says. “This has driven the faculty to think about how they’ve designed their courses.”

Faculty also must cope with a 24/7 time frame. When can they truly close shop for the day? Perhaps never, says John DeAngelo, assistant dean for information technology at Fox School of Business. The time when interaction with students was confined to the classroom and occasional office visits is effectively over.

“Students are not at all shy about contacting you any time day or night, and you must be clear about what your limitations are,” he says. “You have to tell them, ‘I answer my e-mail between 7 and 12 every night, but don’t expect one after that.’ If you don’t manage expectations, you’ll be swamped.”

According to Robert Mason, a professor in the Department of Information and Management Sciences at the Florida State University College of Business, the new technologies have resulted in more work for instructors and more time invested in a technology-enhanced course. “I don’t know that any instructor would say that technology has made it easier, or requires less preparation,” he says. “It requires more time. But in a much more meaningful sense, you’re much more accessible to the students, and students expect professors to be more responsive. You’re expected to stay connected even at night and on weekends.”

The New Interactivity

Essentially, technology is changing the dynamic of business schools and other higher education institutions. However, providing a tech-ready, value-added campus that is wired for interaction at all levels means that schools must bear the brunt of higher expenses and an increased pressure to introduce and maintain new systems. As a result, human resources, often already stretched thin, bear the extra load.

“We’ve had the same four network staff in the school since before I arrived four years ago. And yet, those four individuals are now being asked to support activities that four years ago didn’t exist,” says DeAngelo. As examples, he mentions a new entrepreneurship program, a new e-business institute, and a new MIS department. Fox also extensively uses Blackboard, an online course management and administrative tool targeted to universities.

“When you’re doing the same thing over and over again, and you finally get an opportunity to do it in a new way, you can light a fire.”

“Finding a way to continue to support and fund these operations and the personnel that we’re dependent on is probably the biggest challenge facing Temple University, and probably the biggest challenge facing most universities today,” he says.

The level of change has compelled a steep learning curve for staff, students, and faculty, who must adapt quickly to new approaches and continuously relearn new systems. Educators also have had to revamp, at the most basic levels, the manner in which they teach. What used to be fodder for classroom lectures is now posted online; with this material already absorbed, students then come to the classroom ready for interactive team projects, in-depth discussion, and hands-on simulations.

In effect, says Massey of the Kelley School of Business, “you’re fundamentally changing the way you deliver courses and interact with students. Technology is mediating that relationship.” She notes that Kelley has incorporated an online course delivery system called OnCourse and has added a new MS degree in information systems for the fall of 2001.

“Faculty members have been energized by the opportunity to teach new and old material differently,” says DeAngelo. “When you’re doing the same thing over and over again, and you finally get an opportunity to do it in a new way, you can light a fire.”

Building New Communities

Between laptops and the Internet, and the new wireless technologies now conspiring to make the two tools one and the same, management education is still in a state of technological flux. However, it seems to be headed into an era that not only offers new opportunities for experiential, realtime learning, but also a more streamlined system of communications.

An integrated computer system has had a tremendous impact at Fox, according to DeAngelo. “We’re considered to be one of the largest Windows-based installations of Blackboard in the nation,” he says. “We use the tool to communicate with cohorts of individuals.”

The capacity for administrators to post information on scholarships, classes, deadlines, and other subjects in a centralized online location that all students can access is an invaluable resource, emphasizes DeAngelo. “I can’t tell you how thrilled our director of communications is that he now has an efficient way to communicate information that he used to hand out in print over and over again to people walking into his office. Or, often he couldn’t communicate the information to students because he didn’t know how to reach them. With this community, he has a vehicle to distribute information that students need and value.”

Such ease of connection to all the information a university has to offer students results in a stronger sense of community, says Robert May, dean of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, which started its laptop program three years ago. At first, students were reluctant about the laptop requirement; today, they view the computers as essential.

In a survey of students conducted after the program was implemented, 96 percent of students noted that the laptops were an important part of the culture and school environment, says May. “We’ve got faculty at the undergraduate level who are developing a portal that creates a kind of learning community. This binds the program together in a common environment and enriches the culture of the program.”

More Tech to Come

There is no question that the world’s business schools are in for a whirlwind of change in the coming decade. Not only must they keep up with new advances in IT, they also must keep pace with business at large. In the next few years, the number of online courses, the prevalence of students “connected” to each other through wireless means, and the amount of information available to students and corporations via university-sponsored information portals are expected to increase significantly.

Whether or not all these changes are for the better is still a debatable point in some quarters. As schools experiment with technology, some methods will succeed and others will invariably cause controversy. But, as Mason of Florida State University points out, controversy surrounding how and what business schools teach has existed since the mid-20th century.

“Let’s give it a little different perspective,” he says. “Before the 1950s or 1960s, management education was much more hands-on. Then, the Carnegie Report suggested that business management education needed to have a more theoretical base. Much of this report was embraced, and most business schools went to a new disciplinary structure and developed new theoretical models. It became much more like the sciences, with its disciplines very compartmentalized.”

With the technological boom, the pendulum is swinging back again, Mason suggests. He notes that many believe the theoretical models now are being lost in the push toward real-world learning.

“In the ’90s, there was a shift toward more integration, and technology has enabled that,” he says. It is up to educators, he emphasizes, to keep theory in balance with experiential learning. “You need the abstract concepts and the concrete experience and reflective observation as a continuous cycle. I think what we may be suffering from is the lack of time to reflect on what we’re learning in the classroom, internship, or co-op experience.

“I think technology does have the capability to enable us to make the best use of time,” he concludes. “But I don’t know that we’ve developed the technology that enables us to be more effective in our reflective time.”

Finding ways to strike this balance, says Altendorff of London Business School, is the challenge that business schools must now work to address. Schools are working “to move from ambition to actuality,” he says, “and the rate of change is accelerating. Universities are still trying to learn the extent to which technology is critical, or whether or not it’s simply ‘in vogue.’ I think there is still a long way to go for universities to understand the real value of some of these technologies.”

Whether or not universities are ready for the change, students are demanding a shift from traditional to technological information delivery. As a result, the typical business student’s educational experience will be transformed by the influx of computer-related tools in the classroom and campus environment. Even more important, as business school administrators and faculty move from the chalkboard to the keyboard, their experience also is changing. No longer will they be simply communicators of information, but rather, educational collaborators, more inextricably involved with their students’ educations than ever before.